Wilderness of Tigers

Michael Neill

  • Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity by Colin Burrow
    Oxford, 281 pp, £16.99, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 968479 3

I must needs acknowledge, that the Greeke and Latine tongues, are great ornaments in a Gentleman, but they are purchased at over-high rate.

Montaigne, Essays

I grew up in postwar Northern Ireland and at the age of eight, when it was time for proper education to begin, I was loaded onto a train at Belfast Central and shunted across the border to Aravon, a dismal institution in Co. Wicklow where Latin was a new and frighteningly important part of what we had to learn. It was taught, as befitted his station, by the headmaster. A tall, gaunt figure, with a lividly scarred cheekbone and glittering, oddly skewed eyes, A.B. Craig bore a disconcerting resemblance to the bird of prey that punningly adorned the school coat of arms. Along with his twin brother, whose name we could see high up on the roll of honour, Craig had fought at the Somme: according to school legend a shell had landed on their platoon, killing his twin and blowing the right side of Craig’s own face away. By the grace of God, an ingenious surgeon had managed to patch this wound with the dead brother’s cheek. The prosthesis, however, was said to be held in place with a metal plate which would heat up when the old man became annoyed, causing him excruciating pain – hence the rage triggered by the most trivial error in Latin grammar. Craig would begin his classes in congenial mood, often tempting us to relax with a jokey mnemonic (‘Every family has its little soror’); but it would not be long before the scar would redden dangerously; a bungled ablative would excite roars of outrage; the strings of the piano beside his desk would begin to vibrate in horrified sympathy; and the blows would start to fall. ‘Stupid, stupid boys!’

Violence, as well as being the principal agent of order in such establishments, was a time-honoured instrument for training young minds, hence the disquieting ambiguity of ‘discipline’, a word that in Shakespeare’s day could even denote the principal weapon of instruction: the whip. In his essay ‘Of the Institution and Education of Children’, Montaigne, who grew up speaking Latin as his first language, fondly remembered how he and his tutor, the Scottish humanist George Buchanan, ‘did tosse our declinations, and conjugations to and fro … by way of a certaine game’, and inveighed against the majority of schoolmasters, who ‘in liew of gently bidding children to the banquet of letters, present them with nothing but horror and crueltie’. In The Scholemaster (1570), Roger Ascham argued that ‘yong children [are] soner allured by loue, then driuen by beating, to attayne good learning.’ But he could do little to shake the general assumption that ‘the best Scholemaster of our time, was the greatest beater.’ As a grammar school pupil and (if Aubrey is to be believed) a sometime teacher himself, Shakespeare must have been familiar with both sides of this disciplinary regime; and his references to schoolboys, as Colin Burrow observes, ‘tend to go along with sighing, crying or peevishness’, suggesting that ‘the acquisition of learning [was] a painful business.’ In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Parson Evans attempts to show off William Page’s learning to his mother; but when the boy admits he’s forgotten the declension of his pronouns, the schoolmaster at once threatens him with an educative thrashing: ‘If you forget your “qui”s, your “que”s, and your “quod”s, you must be preeches.’

At the heart of the ‘good learning’ that beating strove to instil – in 20th-century Wicklow as in 16th-century Warwickshire – was a knowledge of Latin. It never occurred to me to ask why mastery of this dead language should have been considered so necessary a preparation for life. Part of the answer, of course, is implicit in Burrow’s book: the deeply entrenched idea that the classics must form the core of liberal humanist education was essentially an inheritance from the curriculum of Tudor grammar schools; after more than four centuries it came to seem part of the natural order of things – an ornament of gentlemanly education which served to mark and reinforce class privilege. In Shakespeare’s day, however, study of the classics was a pragmatic requirement. ‘Reading and imitating classical literature were not activities only to be undertaken with reverence and awe … It was just what you did … an engagement … driven by need and use.’ In a culture that valued the creative mastery of imitation above any notion of originality, teachers sought to introduce their pupils to the universally acknowledged models of literary excellence; and, as Shakespeare shows us, they did so with remarkable thoroughness.

The curriculum of Elizabethan grammar schools was designed for boys whose future lay in the church, the law and other forms of public life. For them, what mattered most were the rhetorical arts of writing and speaking, of argument, ornament and persuasion; and these you could master only by studying the great examples of the past. Coincidentally, however, such study also proved invaluable training for the handful of talented young men who would turn to careers in London’s newly established professional theatres. It taught them how to craft and deliver passionate language that could sway the emotions of an audience, and it instilled habits of dialectic and debate that would be essential to dramatic invention. By contrast with university-educated rivals like Christopher Marlowe and John Marston, or the erudite autodidact Ben Jonson, Shakespeare owed most of his classical knowledge to his education in a provincial grammar school; but, in spite of Jonson’s condescending reference to his ‘small Latin and less Greek’, Shakespeare was better read in Latin writers than the vast majority of undergraduates today, and although his knowledge of Greek literature seems to have been mediated through Latin and English translations, he knew Plutarch well through Sir Thomas North’s version of the Parallel Lives, and is likely to have kept up with the publication of Chapman’s Homer.

Successive chapters of Burrow’s book explore Shakespeare’s engagement with Ovid, Virgil, Plautus and Terence, Seneca and Plutarch, as well as his not inconsiderable acquaintance with the major works of Cicero, Horace, Juvenal and Lucan, among others. This is hardly virgin territory, but Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity doesn’t pretend to be a work of original scholarship: it belongs to the introductory series Oxford Shakespeare Topics. That provenance helps to account for a few minor flaws, but also for much of the book’s persuasive energy, since it is intended to excite the interest of an audience with little grounding in classical literature. It can sometimes seem a little too self-consciously pitched at a student market (it’s a surprise to find Burrow declaring that ‘Shakespeare was a sceptical kind of guy, and Montaigne was a sceptical kind of guy’), and occasionally the compression necessary for a volume of this sort can make him a little cavalier with the facts: noting that Shakespeare’s plays show ‘almost no interest in Latin lyric’, Burrow suggests that this was because ‘it’s more or less impossible to register or represent lyric poetic structures … in a way that makes sense for a theatrical audience,’ seemingly forgetting that Romeo and Juliet incorporates both whole and partial sonnets in a way that alert playgoers were clearly expected to notice.

Once or twice, too, he is tempted into over-hasty summations of his own (extensive) classical learning: on the naming of the vicious emperor in Titus Andronicus, Saturninus, he comments that it ‘suggests a collapse into barbarism’ because ‘the age of Saturn was in Roman mythology (and in Ovid) the earliest and most savage period of the world’; but Saturn’s reign was more usually regarded as the Golden Age, in which humans lived in perfect harmony with nature and with one another. It’s true that Titus’ butchery of Mutius and Lavinia seems designed to recall the other face of Saturn, that of the god who devoured his own children; and the murderous Aaron draws attention to the dangerously ‘saturnine’ temperament of those who, like himself, live under the influence of the planet of melancholy; but the play explicitly remembers the Golden Age when a despairing Titus invokes Astraea, the goddess of justice who was last of the immortals to depart the earth at the end of Saturn’s reign: ‘Terras Astraea reliquit,’ he reminds his brother, quoting Ovid, ‘She’s gone, she’s fled … we may go pipe for justice.’ It’s a pity Burrow doesn’t have time to explore these conflicting associations, because the great strength of his book lies in its ability to tease out the complexities of Shakespeare’s classicism: he writes especially well on what this play’s Ovidianism suggests about the concatenation of refinement and barbarity in Roman civilisation, exploring the ways in which mimetic self-awareness enables the playwright to exploit the tension between Ovid’s ‘unsettlingly overpolished’ style and his ear for ‘the mute music of pain’.

Again and again Burrow is able to show that the linguistic skills Shakespeare mastered in the classroom turned out to be ‘transferable in gloriously unpredictable ways’ to his craft as a dramatist. Hamlet’s tormented soliloquies, for example, are rightly considered to mark a new way of imagining a character’s interior life (‘that within which passes show’); but Burrow makes us see how much this psychological innovation depended on the playwright’s manipulation of ancient rhetorical techniques. Fastening on the language of ‘To be or not to be’, he shows how the ‘question’ it debates depends on the form of schoolroom exercise known as quaestio in which ‘pupils … were encouraged to argue on both sides of a complex question’; it was precisely through such exercises, Burrow suggests, that Shakespeare learned not merely how to inhabit different points of view, but how ‘to dramatise the state of mind of people who are suspended between different and equally forceful arguments’.

Shakespeare would have learned about the concept of quaestio from 16th-century textbooks like Thomas Wilson’s The Arte of Rhetorique (1553) – which he quotes in All’s Well that Ends Well – as well as from classical theorists such as Quintilian, Cicero and the author of the widely cited Ad Herennium, for all of whom it makes up, along with res (matter) and causa (cause), the substance of the genus iudiciale – the rhetorical mode appropriate to judicial proceedings. The dramatist’s extraordinary familiarity with the structures of argument prescribed by legal rhetoricians is the subject of Quentin Skinner’s meticulously documented Forensic Shakespeare.[*] Skinner describes his book as ‘a supplement’ to Burrow’s; but its approach to Shakespeare is of a confessedly un-literary character. Indeed Forensic Shakespeare was conceived as part of a specialised historical project – ‘the third instalment’ of an extended effort to understand how the ars rhetorica helped to shape political thinking in the Renaissance. Complementing Skinner’s two-volume Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1978) and his more recent Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (1996), the book is interested in Shakespeare primarily as an exemplum of a particular, historically conditioned way of thinking about the methodology of argumentation and persuasion.

Building his case around the five main parts of a legal oration – prohemium, narratio, confirmatio, refutatio and peroratio – Skinner proceeds, by examining episodes of argument, trial and formal debate, to show how closely the playwright, especially in his middle period, chose to follow the instruction of standard rhetorical mentors in structuring not only speeches but entire scenes. Deliberately avoiding critical ‘interpretation’, which he understands as ‘the process of analysing or deconstructing texts and passing judgement on their worth’, Skinner is concerned only ‘with explanation, with the attempt to determine why the works I am considering possess their distinctive characteristics’. While this may seem to constitute a rather narrow notion of what is most distinctive about the plays, oddly discounting dramatic context, psychological insight and the music of Shakespeare’s verse, it clears the way for a richly detailed and remarkably persuasive demonstration of one of the ways in which Shakespeare’s classical education helped to shape his imitative practice.

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The classics offered more than models for imitation, of course: they could be actively quarried for plot material, and for ornament, as well as for purposes of allusive irony; and they could provide a conveniently respectable cover for the discussion of politically controversial matters. Indeed Burrow’s interest is not so much in demonstrating the extent of Shakespeare’s classical knowledge as in showing ‘the interesting things he did’ with it, and how those things changed through his career ‘in response to his contemporaries … to new reading and to the demands of different generic and theatrical settings’. The great pleasure of reading Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity lies in its lively and flexible awareness that ‘what Shakespeare “knew” about classical literature is inseparable from the ways he used it … as a changing and theatrically inflected resource rather than simply as a static body of learning.’ It shows, for example, how the playwright came to manipulate what began as straightforward borrowing in order to complicate theatrical meaning: the early Comedy of Errors lifts the greater part of its plot from the farcical confusions of Plautus’ Menaechmi, but Twelfth Night – whose resemblance to Menaechmi was noted by at least one contemporary – gives the old plot of mistaken twins a new twist by attaching to it the ‘defiantly unclassical’ story of a steward’s infatuation with his mistress.

As Burrow points out, ‘no Roman comedy has a slave or freedman love a citizen woman, just as no Roman comedy would represent the manoeuvres which go on inside a household.’ Not only does Shakespeare’s play allow the audience to enter the once forbidden domestic space, but it draws much of its humour from challenges to the prerogatives of rank and gender that would have seemed unthinkable to the authors of Roman New Comedy. For classically educated playgoers, such deliberate breaches of convention must have given an extra charge to Twelfth Night’s wry probing of love and service. Shakespeare would give the same device a peculiarly savage twist in Othello, which, as Burrow reminds us, not only penetrates the final privacy of the bedchamber, but does so as an obscenely material equivalent to the way in which it ‘takes the habitual concern of Roman comedy with inference and uncertainty right inside the mind of its hero’.

Unlike Ben Jonson, with his studious attempts to reinhabit an antique world, Shakespeare often chooses to draw his audience’s attention to the theatrical imposture involved, remembering the conventions of classical theatre to transgress them. This, Burrow suggests, was in part a defensive manoeuvre by a playwright aware that his learning might be mocked by better educated rivals. This way of ‘channelling … his own social and educational anxieties’ is exemplified by the mechanicals’ wonderfully inadvertent burlesque of Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the actors’ clumsy efforts to achieve a grand style appropriate to their classical subject matter perfectly mirror the misplaced social aspirations of their court performance. At the same time, more disconcertingly, their ‘tragical mirth’ is used ‘to hint at a darker possible plot which lurks within the comedy which is being enacted onstage’; it thus helps – along with the sinister ‘underpresence’ of Senecan tragedy that Burrow traces in the Athenian woods – to undermine the smug condescension of Theseus and his courtly entourage.

When Shakespeare revisited ancient Greece in Troilus and Cressida, he pushed this sly generic mixture to violent extremes, deforming his epic subject by yoking it to snarling satire and romantic tragedy. It was such violations of classical decorum that so affronted Philip Sidney and caused him to rail against his contemporaries’ taste for ‘mongrel tragi-comedy’. Shakespeare liked nothing better than to tease or confound his audience’s expectations: he renders the tragic effect of Othello even more cruel by means of its deliberate recollections of Roman comedy. These are particularly conspicuous in the first act, with its escaping lovers, lovesick buffoon and bumbling, deluded patriarch; as Thomas Rymer notoriously complained in his Short View of Tragedy (1693), these elements help to shape the entire plot, so that while the protagonist’s advance into ‘the vale of years’ recalls the senex amans of Roman comedy, the self-delighting trickery of the villain is unmistakably modelled on the witty, conniving slaves of Terence and Plautus.

As such examples suggest, imitation for Shakespeare always involved a degree of emulation, and even Jonson, no matter how he patronised the limits of his rival’s education, announced him the winner in that contest, declaring that by surpassing ‘all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome/Sent forth’, Shakespeare had ensured that ‘Neat Terence, witty Plautus … antiquated and deserted lie.’ Despite Jonson’s hyperbole, there is something sharply perceptive about that ‘antiquated’, given the way in which Shakespeare’s classicism so often serves to expose the outmoded limitations of his models. Spenser had demanded of the scholar Gabriel Harvey, ‘Why a Gods name may not we, as else the Greekes, have the kingdome of our own language,’ and if English writers from the 1580s onwards can be seen, as Richard Helgerson argued in Forms of Nationhood (1992), to be engaged in a struggle to reinvent a barbarous provincial tongue as an instrument of cultural authority, then Shakespeare’s dramaturgy was of a piece with such designs: for him the Greek and Roman heritage was not something to rebuild, but to be built on.

Occasionally, a show of classical learning, combined with self-consciously Latinate diction, is used in an antiquarian fashion to bring to life the particulars of a historically distant Rome. This is true of the opening scene of Titus Andronicus, but it’s probably significant that this scene is in the portion of the play often attributed to George Peele. In the scenes Shakespeare wrote, he makes use of elaborate patterns of literary allusion, typically to highlight the self-conscious fictionality of the scene, so that, as Burrow writes, ‘Virgil … sounds like a distant, strangled voice’ reminding the audience of ‘an alternative kind of Roman Empire to the one presented on the stage’. Elsewhere, he suggests, Shakespeare deployed classical material to create a much vaguer impression of the antique, but not merely for atmospheric purposes.

In Hamlet, the formal, rather stilted language of ‘Aeneas’ tale to Dido’ serves to ‘incorporate an “epic” register into the play’ but ‘does so within quotation marks, as nervy pastiche’, suggesting ‘a version of Virgil that … dates from years before’. Along with the archaic rhymed verse of ‘The Mousetrap’ play within the play, this speech helps to build a sense of ‘distinct temporal and stylistic layers’ that, while highlighting the inventive novelty of Shakespeare’s own writing, also emphasises the stylistic self-deception involved in Hamlet’s display of vengeful Senecanism. This is an antic/antique hero who ‘is trying to be and to sound old, theatrically’, while nevertheless instinctively resisting the mould into which the Senecan plot tries to force him. If Hamlet makes use of the Player to whet his own histrionic appetite, the deliberately antiquated manner of his response ‘becomes … its own end, distracting the hero from performing the act for which he adopted this stylistic mask in the first place’. This abruption of purpose, moreover, is mirrored in the scene’s ingenious dramaturgy; Polonius’s mid-line interruption of the Player’s narrative occurs at the very point where, in Virgil’s version, Aeneas is about to describe his reaction to the slaughter of Priam; this doubled aposiopesis creates a rhetorical ‘hiccup’ that at once ‘reflects and is reflected by the structure of the play … in which remembering rather than revenging, or remembering as revenging, takes over the plot and leaves it sprawling’.

Burrow’s acuity as a close reader constantly invigorates his analysis. Discussing the debt to North’s Plutarch in Coriolanus, he pays particular attention to the scene before the gates of Rome in which the hero is confronted by his mother. Coriolanus’ despairing response to Volumnia’s pleading follows the source almost word for word, but Burrow points at a seemingly insignificant alteration: where Plutarch’s Coriolanus cries, ‘Oh mother, what have you done to me?’ Shakespeare has: ‘Oh mother, mother! What have you done?’ The poignancy of that redoubled ‘mother’ is obvious enough, but Burrow focuses on the tiny excision: ‘It is so simple to omit the “to me” … but it reads like a radical transformation: the personal destruction of Coriolanus seems suddenly to expand outwards into a general tragedy. “What have you done” puts the stress on “done”, and on what has been done not just “to me” but to the world.’

Equally compelling is the account of what Shakespeare does with Seneca in King Lear – to all appearances the least conventionally Senecan of the tragedies. Having demonstrated how closely Lear’s furious ‘I will do such things’ paraphrases Atreus in Thyestes, Burrow goes on to argue that the whole play can be understood as the product of ‘deep and continued thinking about Seneca, and about the way that [the theme of] ingratitude in particular could bridge the gap between Senecan ethics, Stoic cosmology and Senecan drama’. This is what informs the apocalyptic rage of Lear’s tirades on the heath so that ‘Blow, winds,’ while ‘not remotely “Senecan” in the traditional staid, mannered, speechifying way’, exemplifies Shakespeare’s emulous ‘desire to create a British equivalent to Seneca’. In the soaring arias of a deposed king, amid the spectacle of a disintegrating kingdom, Shakespeare proclaims the kingdom of his own language.

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There was a politics to that claim, of course, just as there was to Shakespeare’s choice of a fable that must have resonated uncomfortably with James VI and I’s vision of a reunited island of ‘Great Britain’. By the same token Shakespeare’s more direct engagements with the classical world carried their own ideological freight – and enable a different understanding of the stubborn persistence of the classics in the Anglophone school curriculum. Latin was crucial in 1950s Wicklow, but it was equally important at the faux public school I later attended 12,000 miles away in New Zealand. Here too it was taught by the headmaster – a former Gurkha whose office was decorated with photographs of Nepalese bagpipers. Looking back, I can see that these peculiar relics of the Raj reflected a notion of history bound up with a lingering sense of imperial mission. If this school was a belated expression of the longing to create a little England in the South Pacific, the one in Wicklow was an equally faded relic of Ascendancy Ireland. Founded in 1862, Aravon numbered the nationalist martyr Roger Casement among its old boys, but his name wasn’t included on the blazon of glorious dead that hung over our daily assemblies: this establishment, though located in a republic that had been independent of Britain for more than thirty years, still imagined itself as a training ground for future servants of the empire Casement had renounced. The prizes most frequently given out were H.E. Marshall’s Our Island Story and Our Empire Story, triumphalist Edwardian histories whose confidently possessive titles erased not just the embarrassment of Irish separatism but the Irish Sea itself.

Like Holinshed’s Chronicles, Our Island Story announced the nation’s imperial destiny by placing its origins firmly in a Roman past. Marshall even revived the foundational legend, modelled on Virgil, that described Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas, giving his name to Britain and establishing London as ‘New Troy’. Five chapters were devoted to the island’s shadowy centuries as a province of Rome, a prelude to a history whose symbolic climax was the investiture of Queen Victoria as Empress of India. In this context there was a political imperative to learning Latin. It was not simply, as Montaigne had supposed, that the classics were indispensable ‘ornaments’ of a gentlemanly education, but that they helped provide an imaginative genealogy for empire and its ‘civilising’ mission.

In Shakespeare’s late romances Cymbeline and The Tempest, classical deities descend to utter prophecies of ‘peace and plenty’ whose resonances extend beyond the royal marriages with which each plot concludes to promises of national glory – fantasies that found an immediate counterpart in the engravings of John Speed’s magnificent atlas, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (1611). For 17th-century readers the word ‘empire’ was inseparable from the Roman history contained in its etymology. Speed’s maps are decorated with antique monuments that reveal the continuing presence of Rome in the British landscape; the title-page engraving takes the classical form of a triumphal arch in whose niches a Herculean Briton is flanked by a sequence of smaller figures who represent the successive builders of Speed’s ‘Empire’: a Roman, a Saxon, a Dane and a Norman. This is another version of Cymbeline’s concluding vision, which imagines how ‘Th’imperial Caesar [will] unite/His favour with the radiant Cymbeline’ so that ‘A Roman and a British ensign [may] wave/Friendly together.’

As the names of Cymbeline’s central couple are intended to remind us, somewhere behind its action lies the fiction of New Troy: Posthumus takes his name from a reputed son of Aeneas, while Imogen shares hers with Brutus’s wife. The half-playful nature of these allusions was no doubt a result of the fact that the Brutus legend, first disseminated by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, and more recently by Holinshed, Spenser and others, had been rendered suspect by the work of late 16th-century historians like William Camden; but by then the notion of England as the inheritor of Rome’s mantle had taken firm root. Indeed it was Camden himself, in his chorographic masterpiece Britannia (1586), who insisted that ‘the Britons and Romans … by a blessed and joyful mutual engrafting … have grown in one stock and nation.’ Implicit in this claim was the idea of translatio imperii – the westward and northward movement of imperial destiny – which, in England, as in other parts of Europe, animated the language of public display. Thus the ‘consciously Roman’ design of the triumphal arches erected for coronations and royal entries, like the Latin orations for which they formed the backdrop, spoke of a London that was also ‘Londinium’ – a city centred on the Norman fortress contemporaries believed to be what is described in Richard II as ‘Julius Caesar’s ill-erected tower’.

From early in his career, Shakespeare seems to have been interested in the relationship between emergent British nationalism and Rome’s imperial legacy; dreams of a new imperium surface repeatedly in his plays. The Chorus in Henry V, even as it identifies Henry as a second Alexander, imagines the Earl of Essex, ‘general of our gracious Empress’, returning from Ireland like another ‘conqu’ring Caesar’ to the adoring crowds of ‘antique Rome’. It was as such a Caesar, clad in the armour and parade helmet of a Roman general, that a contemporary map, made for the queen as an adjunct to her Irish campaign, portrayed the Norman conqueror of Ulster, Sir John de Courcy. In Antony and Cleopatra, the triumphant Caesar’s promise that ‘the time of universal peace is near’ not only identifies the establishment of the Roman imperium with the advent of Christianity, but invites its audience to recognise James, the self-proclaimed rex pacificus, as a new Augustus. The Tempest’s fantasy of colonial plantation resonated with contemporary enterprises in Ireland and the New World, but its Mediterranean landscape is full of Ovidian echoes and shimmering refractions of the Aeneid, which, as Burrow puts it, ‘seems to have been broken up and reassembled into a string of shadowy resemblances’. Not only that, but when the antiquarian Gonzalo insists that ‘this Tunis, sir, was Carthage,’ the audience is again invited to remember that this London once was Rome – and may become so, in a new and larger sense, once more.

Adorned with classical columns of imitation marble, even the buildings in which these plays were performed sought to enhance their prestige by striving (in the words of a Dutch visitor) to ‘resemble … a Roman work’. London’s first permanent playhouse was even christened ‘The Theatre’ – ‘that is’, as one of its Puritan enemies tartly observed, ‘after the manner of the old heathenish theatre at Rome, a show-place of all beastly and filthy matters’. At the Globe, Shakespeare’s own company advertised their ancient lineage by means of a sign showing Hercules supporting the world on his shoulders, over a motto derived from Petronius: Totus mundus agit histrionem. Shakespeare’s plays often flaunt their Roman heritage: Titus Andronicus is structured around a series of allusions to Ovid that can even seem to shape the course of the action – most strikingly in the episode where Titus’ mutilated daughter seizes a copy of the Metamorphoses from her schoolboy brother. Ovid’s tale of Tereus and Philomela not only enables the tongueless Lavinia to tell the story of her own rape, but provides a template for the cannibal banquet of the final scene – a climax that also remembers the bloodthirsty catastrophe of Seneca’s Thyestes. Together with a liberal sprinkling of tags from Seneca and Horace, such devices help to authenticate the boast of the play’s original title-page, which styled it a ‘Romaine Tragedy’. The most celebrated speech in Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus’ ecstatic account of Cleopatra’s arrival at Cydnus, is transcribed almost word for word from Plutarch; but ‘almost’ is the key word, for this is an exercise in imitatio of the most exalted kind – at once a homage to the classical past and (by its slight adjustments of wording and rhythm) a triumphant demonstration of the artifice that could leave its original in the dust of antiquity.

Even in a self-proclaimed ‘Roman Tragedy’, Shakespeare’s imaginary metropolis was a highly ambiguous place: much of Titus Andronicus’ rhetoric appears to promote Rome as the exemplum of what would later be called ‘civilisation’, the anti-type of the chaotic violence represented by the barbarian Goths and the savage moor, Aaron; yet the tragic action, set in the twilight of empire, repeatedly collapses that difference, exposing the city as a ‘wilderness of tigers’. Revealing Titus himself, the supposed ‘patron of [Roman] virtue’, as the perpetrator of a ‘cruel, irreligious piety’, no better than his savage enemies, the play allows his son to restore order at the head of a Gothic army whose northern vigour promises to purge the decadence of Rome. Plutarch, as Burrow points out, was of particular value to Shakespeare not just (as is usually supposed) because the dialectical method of the Parallel Lives was readily converted to theatrical purposes, but because his ‘emphasis on the aspiring, emulous and contentious minds of his Romans created a [further] set of conflicts within Shakespeare’s ideas of Romanness’. The Shakespeare of Julius Caesar may be as dubious of the assassins’ claim to be ‘the men that gave their country liberty’ as he is of Pompey’s nostalgic recollection of these ‘courtiers of beauteous freedom’ in Antony and Cleopatra, but he regards Octavius Caesar and his autocratic successors with an equally sceptical eye.

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It would be easy to assume that the classical detailing of the Roman plays was contrived as a way of establishing the audience’s historical distance from events. But the sheer familiarity of Shakespeare’s citations meant that they were just as likely to work in an opposite fashion, placing a play’s Romanness in quotation marks, and chiming with the dramaturgy of a work that, as Titus Andronicus does, draws on the conventions of medieval drama to make the audience a part of the crowd scenes, hailing them as ‘Romans … people and sons of Rome’, for whom ‘our Troy, our Rome’ stands as a mirror for England – as it will do again in Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and especially in Coriolanus. The effect of such moments might be to excite patriotic emotion, but they could also work in the opposite way: as critics have long recognised, the hungry citizens of Shakespeare’s last tragedy echo the voices of revolt stirred up by a succession of poor harvests in Shakespeare’s native Midlands. Observing the risk involved in making ‘a crowd of angry and rebellious Roman plebeians blend into the audience of the Globe’, Burrow suggests that Shakespeare got away with it precisely because he combined such ‘very English moments with historical details about specifically Roman practices drawn from Plutarch’, the display of antiquarian accuracy masking a very different aim.

While the history of the Roman Empire could offer an inspirational model of national destiny, the vagaries of Roman politics also made it an invaluable instrument for thinking about public life and systems of government. In each of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, the notion of what Rome stands for proves highly contestable. Not only might it all too easily be associated with the corruptions of its papal namesake, but its successive incarnations as monarchy, republic and autocratic empire meant that its history was subject to conflicting ideological interpretations which, when transferred to the stage, enabled playwrights to explore ideas that might in other contexts appear dangerously subversive. This was especially so in the wake of the mid-1599 clampdown that put the dramatisation of England’s own history largely off-limits. Henry V, the last play in Shakespeare’s historical cycle, performed in the spring of 1599, has awkward questions to ask about the nature of kingship and the justification of foreign wars; but they are easily obscured by its parade of patriotic rhetoric. When he turned from Henry’s performance as ‘conqu’ring Caesar’ to the story of Julius Caesar himself, Shakespeare could afford to be less guarded about the terms of political argument, using Caesar’s assassination and the ensuing civil war as a vehicle for staging the opposition between republican idealism and autocratic realpolitik. A decade later he adapted Plutarch’s ‘Life of Antony’ to interrogate the ‘Roman’ vision of empire; Plutarch’s account of Coriolanus, similarly, would allow him to probe the conflicting claims of archaic heroism, patrician self-interest and inchoate populist resistance.

There were, as Burrow reminds us, ‘many layers to the concept of “antiquity” in Shakespeare’s period’, and many uses to which the antique could be put. The audience might sometimes feel like gods ‘observing with a savage detachment the performance of an ancient Roman tragedy’, while at other times they might find themselves considering arguments and conflicts that were disconcertingly familiar. The ‘good learning’ instilled by a classical education, though designed to meet the needs of the Tudor state, turned out to be an ambivalent gift. Half a century after Shakespeare’s death, Thomas Hobbes, reflecting on the genesis of the Civil War, placed the study of ancient authors among the principal sources of political mischief: ‘there were,’ he lamented,

an exceeding great number of men of the better sort, that had been so educated, as that in their youth having read the books written by famous men of the ancient Grecian and Roman commonwealths concerning their polity and great actions; in which books the popular government was extolled by the glorious name of liberty, and monarchy disgraced by the name of tyranny; they became thereby in love with their forms of government.

Stupid boys.

[*] Oxford, 356 pp., £20, October 2014, 978 0 19 955824 7.